Archive for the Junk 5: Fall 2011 Category

A String of Lights

Posted in Allison McCabe, Junk 5: Fall 2011 with tags , , , , on November 15, 2011 by Tim Elhajj

by Allison McCabe

The valley’s not really magic. When I was a kid I thought it was, because when you drive north on the 405 there’s a moment when you come over the hill and you see the valley laid out beneath you. At night the lights on the buildings glitter red and white and yellow. Those San Fernando cities—Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks—are indistinguishable at night, each square block a mirror image of the previous one, boundaries dissolved.

So first there were the lights against a black background as we crested, then descended. My daddy used to say: “Look at the sparkly jewels. We are going down into the Seven Dwarves’ Diamond Mine.” Maybe we sang.

Then later, after my dad had been dead for a couple of years and I had little reason to navigate those dusty valley streets, I returned for the dope. I didn’t know about downtown or Bonnie Brae in those days. But my friend had introduced me to his dealer in exchange for two hundred dollars cash and a twenty dollar balloon.

Dope made the valley magic again.

I would take the 405 north, but usually in the daytime. I still felt the sharp-edged pleasure of that nostalgia as I came over the hill. The dealer would tell me where to meet him: a Thrifty or Ralph’s parking lot, the alley behind a bar, some random residential corner. I would park and keep my eyes trained on the rear view mirror, the reflection of the street, heated air shimmering low over the asphalt.

Sometimes, after I copped, I would drive by my dad’s old house. From the outside, it looked the same: wooden fences with chipped white paint sagging under the weight of pine needles, the huge tree in the front yard, the cement stairs and porch under the living room windows. I always slowed and looked for signs of a child–a brightly colored ball, a big wheel, walnuts on the porch for the squirrels.

It was impossible to make it back over the hill without getting high. So I usually wouldn’t take the freeway back. I’d take Laurel or Coldwater so I could turn onto some quiet street, park, and get high. In those days I smoked it, so I always had aluminum foil in the car. Sometimes, if I wasn’t afraid of nodding off, I detoured onto Mulholland for the view. After I got high I wasn’t sick anymore, and I didn’t feel the nostalgia.

The childhood memories are mostly still distorted. But I do remember the squirrels coming right up to the welcome mat and picking up the nuts in their little hands. I watched them from inside, my face pressed against the window, trying hard to stay quiet so I wouldn’t scare them away.

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Higher Ground

Posted in Grady Phelan, Junk 5: Fall 2011 with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2011 by Tim Elhajj

by Grady Phelan

The symptoms are all too familiar.

Your calves are on fire. Muscles cramp. Lower back aches like dead weight. Fingers and toes feel numb. Head pounds, skin itches, sweat dries. You have a runny nose, watery eyes, stiff joints, ass rash, and bruises peppering your limbs. The pain will linger for days. The discomfort is so consuming, so inescapable that, despite your body odor, you haven’t bothered to shower or even change clothes in nearly a week.

Your doctor, if consulted by phone, might presume you fell off the wagon, that you’re lying in bed, that after going on a heroin binge you’re suffering through withdrawal. But at 4,587 feet, alone atop Wright Peak, you know such a diagnosis would be wrong.

For starters, cell reception is spotty at best this deep in the Adirondacks. And you’re far from flat. You’re standing. On a mountain. In snowshoes. At sunrise. By yourself. You’ve been winter hiking and ice climbing the entire vacation, which is why you’re so beat up, so ragged out. Your body feels like a bag of bones, yet you haven’t used junk in a decade. You’re not jonesing. Much to the contrary—at the moment, you’re pretty damn high.

You climbed more than a hundred mountains last year, soaking up alpine views from the Catskills to Colorado. Not much has changed. The substance may be different, but once again, you’re hooked. The wilderness still calls. You still walk through sketchy areas in the dark. Still disappear for days on end. Still push your luck. Still leave loved ones to worry. Still run around chasing dreams.

A friend wonders why you replaced heroin with mountains, failing to realize the question he’s asking is why anyone uses junk in the first place. “It seems so extreme. You put yourself through hell. And it’s dangerous.” You try to explain: it’s not easy, but once you’ve kicked dope a few times, climbing a mountain is no big deal. He asks what you’re looking for. In the heroin days, it wasn’t God, only heaven. Now, it’s about getting to higher ground.

People warn you about going solo. They say it’s risky, especially in winter. But if you’ve learned anything from smack, it’s how to push the envelope without bursting into flames. You still crave that out-of-body experience, to see yourself standing in snow on a summit—the same way you once, nodding from half a bundle, watched from above as you lay to waste on a bathroom floor. Addiction is peeking over the edge without going too far, scaling mountains without falling off them, if only so you’ll be able to climb another day.

You have faith. You believe in yourself.

And so do I.

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All Filler

Posted in Brock Kingsley, Junk 5: Fall 2011 with tags , , , , on September 15, 2011 by Tim Elhajj

by Brock Kingsley

All Filler

Before I turned myself into a blackout drunk, and before Colby killed himself in some lonely room in a Holiday Inn near the I-70 on-ramp, we went to high school together. Scecina Memorial, on the eastside of Indianapolis. A Catholic high school in a blue-collar neighborhood behind a fire station and separated by a chain link fence from a bar called the Shi-Kay. The Shi-Kay was the kind of bar that was filled with the doomed and depressed, alcoholic and addict, and Colby and I would eventually find our ways into their ranks.

In high school, Colby was a brash, pudgy kid whose clothes and hair made it look like he had just come out of a J.C. Penney’s ad. I was constantly being told to tuck in my shirt, and was sent to the dean’s office to shave the two-day growth from my chin. I played sports and ran around with popular kids and drank and got high on the weekends and before school. Colby liked to brag about how expensive his shoes were and thought he could talk shit because his old man was a cop. In his mind, this gave him license. And in most cases, it led to him getting his ass kicked. Still, we got on well enough.

We both played golf at a burnt-out city course named Pleasant Run. And while Colby and I were never really friends, we occasionally played eighteen together. Sometimes it’s enough just to have another human being around. Sometimes you need to know that you’re not alone. We would see each other at parties and pass a joint back and forth and laugh about things that, at the time, seemed hilarious, but things that, now, I can’t remember.

But I do remember how, at that golf course, when nobody was looking, he would sneak into the shed where the concessions were kept and come out with a couple of warm cans of Budweiser. And once out of view from the clubhouse, we would crack them open and chug the beer down. I told him he was stupid for stealing the beer, but I never refused to drink it, no matter how warm.

After high school, I spent a year at two different universities, dropped out of both and came back home. One weekend, I ran into Colby at a party. He was a senior in high school and I was seeing a girl in his class. Everybody at that party was younger than me. Colby and I did shots of vodka in the kitchen until we could barely see, then he laughed and said, “I just want you to know, I’m not going to be like you.” Then he ran outside and threw up.

I understood what he meant: he wasn’t going to be what he considered a two-time loser, future alcoholic, who was maybe hanging on to the thrill of high school a little too long. So I left that party, left the girl, and took a string of nowhere jobs working on maintenance and construction crews, as a parking attendant, in retail, and finally landing at the Shi-Kay.

I began tending bar there in 1999. They needed someone to pick up the late shift a couple of nights a week, and I needed easy access to alcohol. I was twenty-one and my drinking, which had started in high school, had evolved into something like need—a routine like breathing or brushing your teeth.

So I worked from eight p.m. to three a.m. slinging booze to a population that included factory workers coming off a shift, looking to unwind the only way they knew how; ex-athletes gone fat in middle age and unable to let go of the glory days; kids a year or two out of high school wanting to check the place out; in the shadows were drug dealers and the women who were willing to perform blow jobs out back behind the dumpster for one more snort of cocaine; and middle class men from the neighborhood who were slowly being dissolved by alcoholism. We all sat there in a kind of communion, and sometimes, Colby sat there with us.

A year after I started working there, Colby walked into the Kay with a group of buddies during one of my shifts behind the u-shaped bar. “What the hell,” he said. “I didn’t know you were working here.” We shook hands and I asked him how school was going and he told me that he was taking a semester off. “I’m working at a bank right now,” he said. “It’s a good job, I’m making good money, there’s opportunity for advancement.” I nodded and asked him what he wanted to drink. He ordered four Millers and slipped a five into the palm of my hand like he was doing me a favor.

Colby’s semester off turned into a year. And his visits to the Shi-Kay became more frequent—sitting on the same bar stool, ordering the same rum and Coke on a nightly basis. In that same year, I had twice been arrested and gone through as many useless attempts at getting clean. Some nights Colby and I would shoot pool or sit and talk over a beer. But we didn’t talk about my arrests or that he hadn’t gone back to school yet. We didn’t talk about anything. It was all filler: sports, people we went to high school with, women. Mostly we just drank.

Over the next couple of years, Colby got a promotion at the bank, bought a shiny new black car and started to keep his tie on at the bar. Even though I had quit the Shi-Kay, I continued to go downhill. I got a job on the night sort at UPS, working my way up to part-time supervisor, lording over a group of men loading boxes into tractor-trailers. I was half-drunk most nights trying to make sure your packages got to the right place and on time. But really, I didn’t give a shit. I slept all day then stopped at the Kay for a couple of quick pops to steady my hands before heading to work. But when the weekends came I drank until one of two things happened: I passed out or I ran out of money.

One Saturday a group of seven or eight of us were at the Shi-Kay ordering buckets of beer and shots of Jack Daniels like it was the last Saturday we would ever know. And Colby was there buying round after round, trying to impress a bunch of low-rent drinkers who didn’t care where the booze was coming from as long as it kept coming. And somebody had a little baggie of coke and we started to talk faster and louder—the more we sniffed, the more we drank. We sang the wrong lyrics to the wrong songs that were playing on the jukebox, and none of us wanted to go home. So when the bar closed, we bought a few cases of beer from the bartender and moved our party somewhere else.

By six-thirty in the morning the beer was all gone, my nose kept running on account of all the blow I had done, and I was tired of playing Euchre. I stood up and said I was leaving. Colby, who had been playing cards, too, said he would give me a ride. I told him to fuck off. I was going to walk even though I had no idea where I was or which direction to go. I got about a block away before he pulled up next to me in his car and told me to get in, that I was stumbling around and if any cops saw me they were going to arrest my ass again. I closed the door and passed out.

When he pulled up in front of my house, Colby shook me awake, told me I was home. I opened the door, and instead of saying thanks for the ride, vomit splashed my shoes. “Jesus,” Colby said. “You need to get your shit together.” I was twenty-four years old.

Four years later, something clicked and I finally got sober—white knuckling it through each day doing whatever it took not to have a drink. I had moved out of Indianapolis, gone to Ohio, away from the Shi-Kay and the people I used to drink with. I had gone back to school and, a couple months shy of my thirtieth birthday, earned my college degree. I was on my way to graduate school, and hadn’t thought about Colby since that night he’d given me a ride home, when my mother called and told me he was dead. And this might sound crass, but it’s honest: I didn’t know how to feel, so I took the news with a matter-of-factness I thought appropriate.

I learned second hand from a former teacher that Colby had finally graduated from Southern Indiana University. After graduation he got a job as a construction superintendent supervising the building of apartment complexes and warehouses. He got married to a girl I didn’t know, and, together, they bought a house. He volunteered at St. Mary’s Children Center, helping at-risk kids in Indianapolis. I wonder if there were discussions between Colby and his wife about having children of their own. His life seemed to be on an upward trajectory. And then one day he decided he had had enough. His friends said he was depressed, that they should have seen the signs, should have done something. Friends always say that. And when they say it, it’s always too late.

He went out that day and shot the best round of golf in his life—a 66. Then he checked into the Holiday Inn and swallowed fistfuls of pills, washed down with booze, until he fell asleep and didn’t wake up. At least I think it was pills. Still, in my imagination, whenever I think of his suicide, he uses a gun—a big, blue-black gun. Sticks it in his mouth and pulls the trigger so that the last thing he knows is the taste of an old penny.

The pills and booze seem weak, unsure; the gun romantic, decisive. There is no slow fade into oblivion, no fading chance to reach for the phone and maybe make one last desperate attempt to call for help. Just a quick bang and that’s it, blackness and blood splatter. If I’m honest with myself, that’s how I would do it.

I think about Colby’s life and, on paper, at least, it seems like he had it all figured out: a good job, volunteer work, a wife, a house, a regular foursome. But he didn’t. Something was missing. Something was off. And my guess is he couldn’t figure out how to silence that voice that lived somewhere just behind his right ear—the one that kept telling him that he didn’t deserve the house or the wife, that he would never measure up as a man, how no one really loved him and no matter what anyone else said, his whole life was shit. So he stopped it the only way he knew how. He was twenty-nine years old.

I didn’t go to the funeral, didn’t send flowers or a card or my condolences. Maybe I should have. Still, the reason I didn’t go is because I couldn’t handle seeing myself in that casket. Thinking how it could have been me in that hotel room—how our roles could have easily been reversed. The only thing I did was print out the obituary from the Indianapolis Star’s website and read it over and over again. Wondering, if it were mine, would it have been any longer than the four or five lines telling me about Colby’s survivors, his church, his job, and where I should go to pay my last respects.

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